A full-capacity crowd, a world-class course and sensational racing from the world’s best cross-country racers made Coetzenburg, Stellenbosch the place to be on Saturday, 10 March.
Stellenbosch, South Africa. A mesmerising sunrise greeted riders ahead of the first round of the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain bike World Cup Series on Saturday morning in Coetzenburg for the much-anticipated Epic World Cup. Despite several weather stations forecasting rain for the morning, the weather gods showed mercy and delivered near-perfect conditions – much to the delight of the European riders. For thousands of South Africans however, the wait to see the world’s most talented XCO riders in action was finally over as fans, wielding vuvuzelas and cow bells, descended upon Stellenbosch in their droves.
In the under-23 women’s race it was Denmark’s Malene Degn who sprinted to victory in a dominating display of power, endurance and skill. She beat under-23 World Champion Sina Frei of Switzerland by 27 seconds. Great Britain’s Evie Richards was third, 48 seconds behind the Dane. Degn described the win as overwhelming and the perfect start to her busy season.
“It was an awesome race on a great course. This was my season goal (to win a World Cup) and I achieved it in the first race already,” said Degn. “I’m pretty overwhelmed. I didn’t know I could do this. I don’t know what to say.”
The field was unfortunately bereft of South African hopeful Bianca Haw who sustained a serious injury to her leg while practicing on the course on Friday afternoon. “I’m really sad that I couldn’t play a part in the Epic World Cup after a freak accident on the course yesterday,” said Haw. “A 10cm stick was wedged in my leg and I’ll be going for skin grafts on Monday. I’m very disappointed but the course is amazing and the organisers need to be praised for putting on such an amazing event.”
The men’s under-23 race was a hotly contested affair that saw a throng of riders fight it out for overall victory. But it was Norwegian Petter Fagerhaug who came up trumps decimating his nearest rival – New Zealander Ben Oliver – by over a minute. France’s Neilo Perrin was third. Oliver’s opening lap was a blisteringly quick 12:42 but Fagerhaug’s smooth and calculated approach paid dividends and his consistent lap times around the 4.4km circuit meant that it was going to take something special for anyone to catch him. Perrin, the French under-23 champion, was followed home by Dane Simon Andreassen and Belgium’s Pierre de Froidmont in fourth and fifth place respectively.
Annika Langvad of Denmark showed some good form ahead of the Absa Cape Epic by winning the elite women’s race. Langvad had taken the lead on the first lap before Pauline Ferrand Prevot of France took over at the front for two laps. While Langvad lost some time after unclipping on a climb on lap four she steadily worked her way back and moved in front of Ferrand Prevot on the fifth lap, a position she would never surrender. Third place went to Anne Tauber of the Netherlands who held off the sprinting trio of Helen Grobert, Maja Wloszczowska and World Champion Jolanda Neff. South Africa’s top performer on the day was Mariske Strauss, who finished in 28th position.
In the main attraction of the day, the men’s elite race, World Champion Nino Schurter made his intentions clear by setting a blistering pace in the early laps with the kiwi pair of Anton Cooper and Sam Gaze following closely behind. After starting the race in 30th position, Gaze eventually moved to the front where he and Schurter battled it out for the remainder of the race, with Marotte and van der Poel in hot pursuit. Gaze attacked Schurter on the final lap and held his lead to secure his maiden elite World Cup win in a sprint finish.
“Winning that sprint was just a moment of disbelief,” said Gaze. “I was starting to cramp with a lap and a half to go but as we got closer to the finish I knew I had to be in front. You always dream you can do it. You always go to sleep wishing you can do it. And to do it, is incredible.”
The rain eventually arrived to the delight of all Capetonians and fans, many of whom stayed behind to enjoy a free shower, ushering in the perfect ending to quite possibly the most Epic World Cup ever held on South African soil.